Monday, October 4, 2021

Endogenous Growth Theory: Ideas as Wealth



"The question that I first asked was, why was progress . . . speeding up over time? It arises because of this special characteristic of an idea, which is if [a million people try] to discover something, if any one person finds it, everybody can use the idea."  

               -- Paul Romer, on receiving the Noble Prize in Economics in 2018

Economics is the study and practice of optimizing resources by allocating those resources in ways that maximize their use and increase that use in the future.  In 1990 Paul Romer advanced the theory of endogenous growth.  The value of ideas can explain growth.  The 20th century’s was based on human capital, innovation, knowledge, investment capital, and ability to protect intellectual property--and businesses founded on these dynamics.  Thinking in new ways, applied profitably, contains the power to transform human living conditions, and much more--our collective options to build on affluence for groups and the individual.  Education, another idea source, has long been dedicated to this goal as its main outlook. 

This theory rests on the assumption that the flow of new and economically actionable ideas is unlimited, as a main product of the human imagination and ingenuity.  Throughout human history, ideas are in constant production.  Not all are actionable or successful.  But everything we have as part of culture, from art to tools to high concepts like language and mathematics, began as an idea in the human mind.  From fire to space exploration, ideas, as well as a way to make them reality, have ruled how we live, and our view of what kinds of futures are possible.  The human purpose on earth is an active agenda in the daydreaming of us all. 

“To my mind, intellectual creativity is one of a number of deep mysteries about human cognition, to which it may be vain to seek answers,” writes linguist Geoffrey Sampson in The Linguistic Delusion (2017). Sampson draws parallels between linguistics and economics in their respective searches for the limits of human cognition—one is in language.  The other is in idea generation leading to long-term economic growth based on productivity and technological change generated from innovations within an industry or economy.  Sampson points to Romer’s 1990 theory of innovation as a major advance in economics because it opens the floodgates to further thought--by considering human cognition as an engine of economic growth.  The digital economy is a prime example, including the Internet, along with entrepreneurship as a main form of (GDP) strength in both creating efficiency and new job talents. 

The entrepreneurial revolution parallels the Experience Economy described by Pine and Gilmore in 1999 as a means to widen the standard view of goods and services as the mainstay of economic thinking, expanding this view to include retail, movie-going, travel, medicine, and education.  Focus on experience as its own economic category has prompted professionalizing of many spheres of consumer activity, including medicine, car-buying, vacationing (resorts and theme parks), with many new applications of design, like architecture, to theme experiences of many kinds—for working, shopping, learning, socializing, worshipping, and wellness, including death and dying.

Idea Generation

Endogenous growth is a breakthrough because it counts as an endlessly renewable resource the output of the human brain.  The 1990s was coincidentally the Decade of the Brain underwritten by US government funding to discover much of what we now know about our most important asset.

The human brain is the most advanced processing machine in the known universe.  It contains 86 billion brain cells, generating up to 3000 thoughts per hour, nearly 1 per second, for 70,000 every day.  Brainstorming in groups is much slower: the 6-3-5 method, between 6 people, yields 3 written ideas every 5 minutes. Memory capacity is a quadrillion, or 10 to the 15th bytes, enough to store the entire Internet.  Computing speed per second is 10 to the 13th   --  16th, more than 1 million times the number of people on earth, and more than any existing supercomputer.

Given that English has over 1 million words (including scientific and technical vocabulary), it is not hard to appreciate how many variations within any given idea statement could be developed.  The simple directive “Our industry needs to develop new ways of thinking about what we offer consumers” could be restated and expanded infinitely to inspire all sorts of new thoughts.  Taking this further, lateral thinking seeks out less familiar patterns over familiar ones.  Shifting a concept from one domain to inform another is a common brainstarter in corporate settings: “What ideas can be imported from an unlike source to produce new ways of operating and offering new product lines?”  Of course there is a vast difference between gross and net in setting ideas within language.  The multiple iterations required for publishing ideas in formal style is one example. 

Neuromorphic engineering follows brain function in using what we know about processing speed to develop faster computer function while keeping energy demands low.  The mind in fact uses a double processing approach of two modes: the conscious and subconscious.  The conscious mind is the rational “top of mind,” the logical one that can be trained to think, but this thinking is limited to the rational mode. This mode is vertical, using straightline logic “in the box.”

Below the frontal lobes, operating in the horizontal sphere of lateral thinking “out of the box,” the subconscious mind is 80 times more powerful at processing, comparing, and elaboration – which is the reason 95% of our decisions are actually made subconsciously.  When we have to justify this 95% to the 5%, we recruit the conscious compartment to devise a rationale for our deeper-brain decisions. 

But these originate from a place far less open to metacognition, knowledge of how and why our thinking works.  It is also the mysterious, hard-to-examine seat of our most brilliant ideas. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Linguistics + Diversity

 


 “Were language acquisition solely a question of learning by rote, it would in principle be impossible: one of the key distinguishing features of any given human language is that the number of expressions it contains is infinite.”

--David Shariatmadari, Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth about Language (2019, p. 246)

 

Starting in 1908, the study of language and its structure, linguistics, began to try taking apart this most sociable of human capabilities.  It departs from the academic study of specific tongues (ancient Latin and Greek, modern Spanish and French and English, to unwritten Asian, African, and Native American) or language families, began only in the twentieth century, forming around courses at the University of Geneva in the first decade taught by Ferdinand de Saussure.  Linguistics took off in US universities a half-century later in the innovative 1960s across the academic curriculum.      

How scientific can the study of language be?  That’s difficult to say, because science is about understanding the totality of things, and the infinite and varied nature of humankind’s spoken and written tongues, and their sheer diversity, makes that nearly impossible.  Science also attempts to use what it knows to predict what can happen within any given domain—difficult to determine against the constant changing voice and rules of language as it moves forward in time and among various groups of speakers.   As Geoffrey Sampson puts it in his expose of the field, The Linguistics Delusion (2017), “The heart of the problem is that linguistics sees itself as a science--the soundbite it has used since the 1960s to define itself is “the scientific study of language.  That is a delusion.  Human language is not the kind of thing that can be studied by the methods of science” (p .2). 

English is not the leading native language, spoken by only 400 million people.  By sheer numbers, Mandarin Chinese is first, over 700 million. But English is spoken by 20% of the world population as the secondary language of up to 2 billion people as well as the common linguistic science and technology standard.  The hegemony of English is ironic in that English is difficult to learn and master as languages go.  Ancient forms, Latin and Greek, are widely taught as international academic standards.  Spanish, French, and Russian are also Indo-European internationally well-distributed, with Arabic rising as the leading non- Indo-European member (Western Semitic). Half the world speaks an Indo-European language.  Sino-Tibetan is the second-largest language family, with over a billion Chinese speakers.  These places on the language racetrack change continuously, advancing and retreating with the way they are used and the geopolitics of language learning. 

There are six leading language families, with many branches including extinct ones, accounting for two-thirds of all languages on earth.  A total of 142 families are comprised of over 7,000 languages now spoken, including very large speaking groups and very small ones (representing 2400 at risk of extinction).  One example is the Tuyuca speakers of the East Amazon, just 1000 currently, with 1.5 million tenses, making it one of the world’s hardest to learn.  Archi, spoken in a few Dagestan villages, has just 900 speakers.  Silbo Gomero, spoken on the coast of Spain and the Canary Islands, is whistled.  Xhosa in South Africa, among 11 national languages and the national language of Zimbabwe, uses clicks. An entirely invented language is Esperanto, conceived in 1887 by Polish writer L.L. Zamenhof.  It was designed as a lingua franca, based on Germanic, Romantic, and Slavic roots, but has just 100,000 speakers.  Klingon, the Star Trek invention, still has only 100 fluent speakers—we assume they speak mostly to each other. And modern Hebrew is an ancient language revitalized, spoken by 9 million, almost all Israeli.

This variation, along with the infinite generative power of words, makes linguist Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar a difficult proposition to make and maintain.  Sampson maintains that the attempt at comprehensive grammar has been abandoned, and that there is little sense of convergence toward this ultimate goal (p. 32).  It is not like saying that homo sapiens have a common body, with variations not in structure but in weight, height, skin color, eye color, gender, and genetic code.  All people come into the world with the ability to learn any language, any at all—from Icelandic to any of the 300 Australian Indigenous family.  President Herbert Hoover knew Chinese from his mining engineering work and could communicate that way with his wife when they wanted to share private messages.  The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) convention, even when held in Beijing, is not conducted in Chinese but in English. 

The many languages, and the wide diffusion of centuries and distances between them, under many currents of change, showcase the diversity of speech, words, syntax, and semantics among them all.  Such diversity indicates the richness of the language toolbar itself in the ability to express an infinite number of ideas and realities.  Of course, language is also the largest barrier to communication and idea-sharing—a Tower of Babel-- among the various families together with subfamilies that have developed as expressions of culture.  But as Charles Darwin showed, looking for differences may be more instructive and produce better insights than looking for commonalities.   Indeterminism, rather than limits-seeking, is the rule in physics, history, biology, the arts, and economic life.  Language on the ground, rather than linguistically bound, is more generative, variable, creative, and less rule-bound.  And this seems to offer the gateway into creativity rather than chaos.

 

 

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Business Success: The bottom line is customer value


Amazon is the leading exemplar of company success based on four principles:  customer empowerment, good treatment, meeting unmet needs, and becoming a public good.  These precepts, set out by the Editor-in-Chief of Fortune, are the leading indicators for success, and they outrank the financial benchmarks relied on in classic business analysis. 

In his retirement essay as Editor-in-Chief of Fortune (June/July 2021), Clifton Leaf reviews the history of Amazon’s stunning but hardly instant success starting in 1996, fully a quarter century ago. After all that time in building a reputation for service, Amazon is Number 2 on the Fortune 500, behind only Walmart (the classic customer-oriented giant), with nearly $400 billion in yearly sales.  The pandemic helped its rise to the top and its competitive muscle against other online servers.  As founder Jeff Bezos put it, “Most online businesses fail because they misestimate the value proposition.” 

Leaf continues:

What did give companies a genuine edge, and what still does today, is to empower consumers.  It sounds almost too obvious to say, and yet it’s a message that’s routinely forgotten.  Want to sell more stuff?  Make it as easy as possible for a customer to buy it…Take a page from the Steve Jobs playbook and make it as intuitive to use as possible (Fortune, p. 14).

Serving the customer interest—the largest sense of customer service--is key to that success, The proof is in its runaway position as the go-to internet retailer, Amazon leads the field in devising ways to make buying of practically anything as intuitive as Jobs made the smartphone. Costing hundreds per month, since the mid-1990s, computer-based household purchases have created an entirely new category for the US consumer and the global economy.

This kind of creativity goes beyond innovating on existing platforms.  It requires seeing the market for an altogether new category, then adapting the design so that anyone can learn it virtually unassisted.  The original industry projection for desktop computers was 100,000 units worldwide to be used only by scientists and engineers for math applications.  Thanks to smartphones –a computer with a phone function added -- 90% of the computer-based communications in the world are in words, not numbers. Even for the many non-computer literates, it is the preferred means of communication at any given moment.    

In its quest to make buying and selling easier as the Internet evolves (and become the go-to retailer for the planet as an outcome), Amazon has pioneered on a grand scale better ways of engaging buyers and sellers. This leverages the Internet's customer advantage as it begins to supplant brick and mortar shopping.  The signs were there decades ago that retail was outgrowing its department store and mall heritage.  The entire business model has been "unravelling" for a long time (GlobalData Retail, 2021).  The quest is on to repurpose many thousands of square feet of retail space, morphing mall space, for example, into charter schools, senior residences, Covid vaccination centers, and even as newfound Amazon distribution warehouse centers. 

Others, like American Dream, a $5 billion mall in New Jersey, diversify with experience offerings like ski slopes, water parks, and roller coasters to attract shoppers beyond retail.  So in effect retail spaces are drawing on the proven success of Disney's theme-park artform to give customers what they want.  This is the reason theme parks have totally rewritten the rules of public space to become the leading edge for experience design and marketing machine.

               Leaf comes away from his tenure at Fortune with four “comically simple” principles for conducting business—all customer-focused. 

1)      Empower customers

2)      Treat people well

3)      Meet an unmet need

4)      Make the world better (Become a public good)

Beyond price-earnings multiples and rates of sales growth, judging a business can be as simple as coming to conclusions about its relationship with its customers.   Disney Company has come under sharp consumer criticism for its ticket pricing (which becomes the leading indicator for all theme parks) as the daily gate outpaces the ability of fans to continue their annual visits to Orlando and Anaheim.  This critique is based on the popular assumption that Disney is a public good rather than a profit-driven enterprise.

The New York Times has reported that hidden fees, or drip pricing, makes event tickets and hotel-room reservations difficult to determine or compare until the online transaction is complete – hardly a transparent transaction.  The US Department of Transportation banned drip pricing for airlines in 2011; Marriott and Hilton have more recently been sued by several states over their pricing practices.  Meanwhile the FTC, with broader powers, is considering a nationwide protection plan for consumers in all industries.

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

Cultural Logic and Decision-making


Culture is a broad-based ongoing set of assumptions about ourselves and the world that humankind has been building over millennia.  Culture stands over and above our biological and instinctual heritage.  It is the first and best invention of mankind, the longest-running, and the most influential set of decision-making guidelines ever devised.  It extends the individual brain by multiplying its power over the time and space of collective will and perception.

Culture’s purpose is simple: to make decision making automatic, as free of thought as possible.  This is exactly the reason we know so little about the massive “C-force” that runs most of our thinking—it is so deep-seated that it never shows itself.  But an analytical understanding of its workings is exactly what is called for to appreciate why all decision-making is such a problematic and difficult behavior--and under what mechanisms it operates.

Decision-making

Decision, from the Latin decisio, literally, a cutting off,” shares the same root as “incisive,” also meaning “to cut.”  It is about the knife-blade, and the moment of truth at its glinting edge.  The act of cutting by decision selects things: one to keep, the other to cast away; one ranked above the other, each assigned to separate categories.  Some decisions are irrevocable and life-changing, while others are as routine and harmless as breakfast Cereal A versus B.  While this last has vast implications for General Mills, for the cereal-eater it is a trivial moment in the daily business of choosing Cheerios over Chex.  But any decision, not just cereal (of which there are over 40 name brands on the market by General Mills alone) is normally a cut between options already shaken out or preselected.

When we buy a house, we don’t examine and compare the hundreds, thousands--even millions--of properties on the market nationwide. We know we have a much narrower field to choose from--only a tiny precut sampling: of sizes, styles, addresses, price ranges, and features.  In housing, that cut is rarely related in any significant way to house type or cost, but to location alone. The most important decisions, the “pre-cut” stage, is actually where the critical choices are made—at the far front end.

Cultural logic

This is where the cultural logic process is the most active, and it works in under 250-450/1000 of a second (source: UC Irvine Vision Group).  That’s the time it takes to recognize a broad pattern: to determine whether a person, image, or concept is friendly or threatening, useful or irrelevant, or somewhere in the register (spectrum) in between. It is the broad logic that tells us whether things “out there” are a fit with our own identity, our own current “brand” of gender, age stage, class, and community.  This covers a new business idea, a new decorating color for the home office, the decision to join a health club, accept a credit card offer, switch long-distance providers, or dedicate time to reading one book rather than another.  Rarely do we sit down to draw up a calculus of characteristics to be graded on a rating point scale.  When we do, this is because the values involved are so similar that there is no intuitive way to favor Option A over Option B.

We might buy a toaster by ratings, or even an entertainment center, but not the things that really count in our lives:  the person we marry, the college we attend, the career we follow, the house we live in, or the car we drive.  That is because the more important the purchase, the less it has to do with qualities that can be measured or counted.  The truth is that we choose things because they reflect our internal value system, or sense of who we are, our individual and social identity (including our gender, age, and ties to others).  What this means is that we do use a logic system to make decisions, but it is not technical logic.  It is called Cultural Logic, and like all logic systems, it comes with a set of rules and principles that makes it useful to us.

Cultural logic is our thinking system for buying what matters most to us, but amazingly enough, it is an almost completely invisible system.  We rarely think about it – except when two similar options confront us and we must decide between them.  Decision making is a cultural process; if it weren’t, Scientific American would be in the top ten best-selling magazines in the US, right alongside People.  It’s not even in the top 100.

Curiously enough, although much attention is paid to the weighting method as “scientific” and superior to intuition, only at the very end-stage of the process does this charting happen. At the front-end, far more important as the “framing moment” of the decision, we know what to do, because it “feels right,” evokes the right emotional response, and is consistent with the host of other choices we make throughout our day or our lifetime.  All our choices express these dimensions as expressions of the only true brand, the core of all brand choices: the one we call ME.

Only in the aftermath of the prime choice, which occurs in the pre-editing stage, does rational or process logic comes into play.  As opposed to relational or cultural logic, this is the fine-tuned, rational logic process of combing through a set of similar choices to arrive at the one that seems to offer the highest reward—but that difference is by this time a matter of a far smaller degree.  The value of the field of choices itself has already been established before the finalists are sorted through.  It is the difference between the original filming sequences for a film and the final edits.  The shooting script has already narrowed what the film editor will work with.  And naturally, this framework is narrowed even further by the final cuts: far more footage is shot than ever makes its way to the screen. But theme, story, locale, and characters--all are set from the start.

What this means is that the big cuts in ideas, people, actions, and products have been made tacitly by culture, not the decision-maker, through the process of cultural logic.  The thought process of that logic is a preexisting, invisible one, not one that consumers can reliably articulate in a focus group, survey, or even by observation or experience. People cannot readily tell you why they bought a particular product, only their experience with that product. 

What they cannot identify is the leading factor—those forces that drove them to buy it in the first place. Buyers can only rationalize their choices because the drivers of their decisions operate below their conscious horizon.  This is what marketers want to know, and it is the holy grail of consumer studies.  The closest approach we know to reading the collective mind is to delve into the decoding of that mind by cultural means.

Friday, June 4, 2021

Place Sets the Mental Agenda

 

 How environment affects brain functioning and cultural meaning




“Change the environment, change the brain, change the behavior.” 

                             -- Fred H. Gage, - neuroscientist

 

 “Architectural spaces can inspire the imagination of its inhabitants.”

– Ricardo Legoretta, designer of the Ft. Worth Museum

 of Science and History, Annual Report (Oct 2009)

 Place as mental context

The human mind is highly situational.  Although we rarely think in any conscious way about the power of our physical surroundings, our subconscious mind is ultra-sensitive to them, and changes gears with the slightest change in location.   Human situational awareness and the factors that create thematic cognition are just beginning to be studied and appreciated.  Brain research is now becoming capable of telling us, through imaging, what these factors are and how they work. There are even indications that the qualities of place – lighting, sound, thermotics (heating and cooling), can inhibit or promote brain cell growth.  But this research is just starting to reveal how fine-tuned our brains are to respond to the places we find ourselves – from the neo-natal hospital unit at birth to the places we travel, sleep, eat, work, play, bond with others, heal from illness and injury, and finally die—most often, in the hospital setting of birth.  

 Place sets the mental agenda

Where we find ourselves at any given moment determines what we think about, and how we process that thought.  This process is driven by social surroundings (who we are with), the cultural imprint of place (meaning) along a behavioral range (action within place), and the potential and outcomes of what happens in various venues (expectations, preferred values, and decision making). 

Cultural studies can define and analyze these factors to explore the potentials of a variety of settings and their effects—from simple seating design to the layered complexity of theme parks.  All five senses, especially sight and sound, play a role in the setting’s physiological DNA and its ties to perception and meaning.  The role of place is a rich example of cultural software acting as an IIS--integrated information system--that accommodates and facilitates the many venues we all encounter in our everyday experience. 

These contexts richly influence how we feel at any given moment, and our brains are fine-tuned (though largely at a subconscious operating level) to our surroundings.  Most of our information comes from our highly developed visual sense, but it has been pointed out by perception experts that sound often outranks sight as the cueing system that cuts past our conscious and rational prefrontal awareness to connect with our more primal brain centers.  (In watching film, for example, the musical score sets the emotional tone of the screen image, not vice-versa.)

Understanding environment

Dozens of disciplines—from art history and archaeology to neuroscience and industrial psychology—study environments, from ancient sites to space station design.  But there is far more to these environments and their artifacts than their physical qualities and ingenuity.  In terms of the human mind and its prime output, culture, the core reason to study material culture is ultimately to understand how it works on our minds.  Besides its utility as props in daily life (shelter, workplace, tools, decoration), the most essential question is:

What role do these artifacts and landscapes play in human thinking and behavior across time and in space?  In other words, how do our creations affect us as we live with and within them? 

Thought experiment

As an example, try this simple thought experiment.  Think about a range of contexts: conference room, swimming pool, jet cabin, bedroom, car, classroom, theater box, stadium – all with their own sensory inputs, comfort levels, and stressors (the demands on the brain and sensory systems).  

As a mental shortcut, think of several chairs:  a throne, an armchair, an electric chair, a beach chaise, a church pew, a roller-coaster seat, a massage chair.  How do each of these mini-environments operate as “thinking boxes” – influencing the way we process, making us smarter, dumber, present- or future-oriented, more social, or more private?   Virtually superimpose your body onto these various mini-settings and you can feel the mental shift that follows instantly.  Shift the context, shift the mentality.  This principle comes as close to being a human universal as it gets. 

Where we are, in fact, seems to be essential to consciousness – which is why medical rescue teams will ask you where you are as an index to awareness.  Where you are, in fact is key to who you are at any given moment; following the Japanese proverb (quoted in the TV series Mad Men), “A man is whatever room he is in.”  Further measures of general intelligence are orientation to person, place, and time.

Neuroscience seeks to define place impact in order to discover just how essential human activities can be enhanced: these include learning, mood, social motivation, brain activity levels, productivity, stress, even memory.  Mall designers long ago realized that expanding the field of choices available was central to raising sales; as was making customers feel affluent by keying the room tone to spaciousness, glamour lighting, and muted crowd-noise levels.  Food plays a role by raising the sense of safety and gratification; so that food courts are actually a core feature of successful malls in raising the earnings per square foot.

Brain science

Cognitive science is bringing on the future of design.  Based on these research outcomes and their implications for “experience architecture”--the design of spaces to become the places of human activity--cultural analysis is on a quest for the cultural geography of the mind. This means looking at the built environment not just for its intended pragmatic uses, but for something more sophisticated--as the delivery mechanism for mental and neurological states that it often inadvertently creates and encourages. “Room tone” is a term that can be adapted to describe the mind-setting effect of our surroundings. Place, through room tone, works like a channel changer, by evoking different styles and moods along the dial – tied into different brain regions and functions.

The brain on place

Place dynamics as a way to understand culture and cultural values enlists the collated wisdom of cultural geography, material culture study, neuroarchitecture, and social history and psychology.  The overall question is to discover and define the cultural logic that follows from the spatial logic in any given venue. To do this, the challenge is to discern from the way that places are actually used (their function, which is not necessarily the way they are designed to be used) by a series of basic questions, answered from the point of view of the space user: (source: David Pesanelli Design)

1. What is this place ABOUT?  Basic cultural purpose based on themeatics:  holistic meaning, not at the level of discrete detail

2. How does this place make me feel?  (neurological) Security is Number One – Stimulation is Number Two

3. Who am I in this context? – How do I fit the context? Do I belong?

4. How does this place call on me to think and act?  Who else is here?  What’s at stake?” – (risks and opportunities)

Design as experience

In fact, the purpose of all places is to induce various behaviors for a range of purposes—expressing the full span of human experiences on earth.  Built environments are designed to evoke and manipulate our mindsets, through leveraging memory, themeatics (our collective ideas about other times and places on exhibit), shared cultural values, and social consilience (groupthink or the “wisdom of crowds”). 

Historically, built design is more or less effective at this purpose—but there are far more less-effective designs than effective ones, and we need to know how to become much better at what people need, want, and respond to. Urban sociologist William Whyte remarked, “It is difficult to design a space that will not attract people.  What is remarkable is how often this has been accomplished.”

The more we know about the power of place and what drives it, the better our “thinking boxes” can be designed to act on and assist thought, decision-making, and behavior.  This is one definition of liberating human potential--matching our surroundings to the way our brain works. And of course this has always been the mandate of the designer, if not always the achievement, in making places better at their intended goals. 

Novelist John Fowles described the novel itself as a “filmic form,” based on cutting, dialogue, and a series of settings envisioned as film sets.  Since film became a major artform, it is the rare novelist who does not imagine what he writes as taking place on a procession of sets.  In two dimensions, film combines many alternative realities into a single channel, as the theme park does in three dimensions.  This is the multiverse made possible by multi-channel mixed media.  As media innovations take up more and more of our stage settings, these must respond by becoming better and better at incorporating them.  This idea has become a central tenet of any design project.

 

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Language of Ideas

“For the first time in human history, cultural evolution began to outpace biological evolution as instinct and emotion were counterbalanced by custom and thought.”

The Emergence of Man: The First Men (1973, p. 110)

Language as Idea

Understanding and producing speech is one ability.  No one is yet sure how this ability emerged in our evolution as social animals.  But it is essential to who we are. 

Knowing what is meant by spoken words in episodic context is a separate, further kind of compound talent that takes a lifetime to develop in the refined, sophisticated art of listening for meaning.  Language in itself, as anthropologist Monica Smith points out in Cities: The First 6000 Years (2019), is necessary to pose imaginary constructs about both our history and future.  These make up the symbolic architecture that embodies ideas and the authority those ideas exercise over our thinking.  Stonehenge is a memorial and possible astronomical calendar; China’s eloquent Great Wall is a symbol of empire, while Di Modica’s charging bull sculpture is the ubiquitous symbol of Wall Street.

Language is a necessary precondition for thinking. As anthropologists Sarel Eimerl and Irven DeVore write in The Primates, “Of all the advances made by man, the invention of a spoken language probably did the most to set him apart from every other kinds of animal. We actually think in words and, without them, the great mass of human thought processes could not exist.” (p. 183)

Image (right): An example of early writing, inscribed on a clay tablet 4000 years ago.  This is a letter from a customer to a seller complaining that the copper ingots he purchased were of poor quality.  

Social Capacity

But of course, language is our great social invention, not only a personal and private way of flexing and developing ideas.  Language allowed for intensely personal habitats like homes and publicly symbolic spaces like temples and stadia.  Architecture and interiors—even the simple frame pergola--are always above and beyond functional.  They extend our imaginative world into both past and future.  This imagination of place illuminates who we are, privately and publicly, and realizes our potential through the art of design.  But that design is inspired by words and their exchanges.   

Language and speech began the human social capacity for planning and anticipating, without which no large design or enterprise would have had a chance of being imagined, plotted, or transformed.  The early communal hunt is exemplary.  The ability to manipulate ideas, images, and concepts is at the root of all our thinking—especially in describing things yet to come, but that we wish for and can imagine as real (Disneyland is just one example. So is going to the moon and to Mars).  Language is tied to symbolism – it is spoken symbolism, while the written word can transcend time and space – in the form of shared imagination. 

The endless combinatorial power of words adapts speaking and listening to our infinite human potential for shaping and reshaping the past, present, and future.  And it does so instantly as spoken language, and indefinitely as written record.  The art of speech, in tandem with the invention of fire for technological progress, can be considered the first stronghold of mixed reality, as any sentence can represent both the real and the potential.  As well as posing conjectures as a reality contrary to fact: as in Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, when Alice muses “When I used to read fairy tales, I fancied that kind of thing never happened, and now here I am in the middle of one.”

Word Wiring

The human brain holds two main speech centers in the left hemisphere: one in the higher-order frontal lobes, the other close to the hearing center.  We are wired to learn language, but only up through the early teens, and not past age 13.  The development of the pharynx is the key structure that made human speech physiologically possible. And brain capacity—750 cubic centimeters, the baby-sized-brain-- appears to be the minimum requirement for the operational center. (The Primates, p. 109)  

While we cannot be sure when human speech actually took hold, we can begin with homo erectus from one to two million years ago as the stage when people could begin to communicate thought, not just emotion.  This goes beyond the emotion-based language of chimps.  Language thus set the bare stage for civilization.  A clue lies in static tool making as a marker of stalled language development for the Neanderthals, who disappeared 30,000 years ago from their last cave stronghold around Gibraltar.  Another clue comes from half a million years ago, when campsites became the meeting places that eventually extended to villages, towns, and cities.  Group life demanded coordination of ideas, not just action.  It was not until 6000 ago that full cities appeared, and now most of us live in them. 

The Idea Marketplace

The diversity inherent in urban life, as a site embracing multiple human groups, also engendered the art of trade—people, artifacts, ideas, and events—that makes every city a multi-layered experience, a port that draws in the region and the world.  The layered and combinatorial talents of language are indispensable to networking this much coordination and exchange within a single place.  Sumer was the birthplace of written language at the same time it became the home of the first larger cities. The reason is simple: the ancient world ran on trade, as does civilization as we know it, and Sumerians were well positioned as a trade hub with literacy and architecture.

The gift of language provides a magnificently efficient and versatile system of communication.  Its coded series of sounds conveys thought at least 10 times faster than any other method of signaling possibly can—faster than hand signs, moving pictures, or even other kinds of vocalization.  Language is man’s passport to a totally new level of social organization, the tool that allows him to vary his behavior to meet changing conditions instead of being limited by less flexible action patterns, as other primates are. (The Emergence of Man, p. 99)

As the first social stage of making imagination real (the first being inside our singular brains), speech allows us to step outside the self to see, name, and express things so that others can grasp them from our viewpoint and use that personal version to nourish and inspire their own thought and imagery. This was the first crossbreeding of ideas.  Ideas are also best implemented when they can be shared.  This mind-melding, knowledge transmitted through the flexible network of word play, is symbolic thinking indispensable to cultural evolution—running through millions on millions of language-based minds over eons. It created a feedback loop with the brain by which we not only communicate with spoken language (at about 120 words per minute) but think in it (along with images) at about 600 wpm as well. In terms of speed and thought trading, it is unequalled and unstoppable.

Increased linguistic competence led to growth and changes in the brain, which in turn led to the growing catalogue of cultural toolbars, concepts, and artifacts.  This process created the oversized brain that has gone on to create ever-larger inventions and devices.  As Terry Eagleton puts it in The Idea of Culture (2000), “What is peculiar about a symbol-making creature is that it is of its nature to transcend itself.” Language is the cognitive heritage that powers every artistic act, including architecture, literature, theater, music, the graphic arts, and beyond. “Human beings move at the conjuncture of the concrete and the universal, body and symbolic medium, but this is not a place where anyone can feel blissfully at home…Language helps to release us from the prison-house of our senses, at the same time as it damagingly abstracts us from them.” (p. 97)



Monday, April 12, 2021

The City and Urbanity

 

 
Remains of Hisham Palace in Jericho 


“A city is more than a place in space, it is a drama in time.”

 - Patrick Geddes, first urban planner, Cities in Evolution (1915)

 

In the year 1800, only 3% of the world population lived in cities.  Today there are 4,000 large cities worldwide. By 2030, it is predicted that 60% of us will live in cities—and some very large ones.  The 33 megacities, with 10 million or more, (UN, 2018), are growing, many in Asia.  The great majority of human beings, 75-85% of the populations of North America and Western Europe, now live in major cities and their metroplex extensions, as does half the world population.   Rome passed the one-million mark by the end of the first century BC, then declined when the Western Empire’s capital moved to Ravenna in 402 AD. 

By 1850 London became the first city after antiquity to attain a population of a million; fifty years later, in 1900, Greater London had 5 million people.

60,000 years ago, modern humans had populated Europe.  The Holocene period saw agriculture and domesticated animals—and the appearance of Jericho, an ongoing small walled settlement on the West Bank that dates to 9000 BC.   Around 5000 BC, people began to live together in formal groups with work and social roles in permanent settlements—like Athens in Greece, and Byblos in Lebanon.  In Serbia, Belgrade remains one of Europe’s oldest cities, with settlements back to the Neolithic in 7000 BC.  Plovdiv, Bulgaria is nearly as old, back to 6000 BC. Towns and cities began to form the beginnings of urbanity, predating the Bronze Age back to the Neolithic.

A social psychology of urbanity developed as the mindset that we now recognize as civilized thought and behavior.  The proximity principle – the propinquity effect that contributes to attraction between people--also requires moderation of behavior, voice and speech, manners, working and leisure behavior—like sports--and the management of complex networks of people, activities, and beliefs.  Religious affiliation is an example of a continuously self-reinforcing colleagueship that builds community and subcultures.  But group continuity is also a lightning rod for conflicts between groups.  Clashes between and among Christian, Moslem, and Jew, and between their many sects, date from their founding and are ongoing global forces.   

The practice of group living allowed specialized knowledge that led to the metamorphosis of small settlements into larger and larger groups, cities, and regional civilizations with lasting influence on human development.  As the historian Jacob Bronowski noted in The Ascent of Man, agriculture and the settled way of life engendered “a form of human harmony which was to bear fruit into the far future: the origin of the city.” In the Mesopotamian world of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria, the first networked urbanization occurred among city-states, leaving the largest set of ancient artifacts, the invention of writing, the wheel, the 60-based counting system, and large-scale agriculture.  In the Indus Valley developed water management and drainage, harvesting routines, and town planning.  Egypt produced the pyramids, astronomy for horticulture, and engineering.  On the Yucatan Peninsula, the Mayan world evolved astronomy and calendars, large-scale agriculture, and engraved stone architecture.  All these developments called for management science.  Cities are the curators of human knowledge and the care and feeding of that knowledge—the art and science of knowledge preservation and transmission.

The city is the original and ultimate mixed-media creation including augmented reality, arts and architecture, customs and etiquette, words and images, ancient craft and state-of-the- art technology, life and art.  Every city is a multi-layered reality that presents with novelty and dynamism on one hand, as well as established structural, infrastructural, and natural or peri-natural features on the other.  Trees, parks, hillsides, mountain, field, beach and ocean backdrops –these landscapes are there as staging, folded into the city’s design as ornamentation.  The city’s setting changes the way we look at nature as aesthetics, a kind of design operating ancillary to streets, monuments, buildings, open spaces, and the city profile, the skyline.  These are in constant flux.

Cities are complex permanent exhibits that, like museums and theme parks, invite us back by steadily updating their content and presentation.  Commercially, we see this everywhere, from supermarket shelves to the showcase windows of Tiffany’s and the bakery case at Starbucks.  The human pageantry—the population who live in and use the site--is the theatrical vitality that makes everything come alive as what Disney Imagineers call “streetmosphere,” the cityscape of human drama. Just by sheer numbers alone, the myriad factors that make up a city can be combined and recombined to recapitulate the history of the world and prefigure the future as a design for living.  Along with their human inhabitants, cities showcase diversity across many categories—as fashion, music, food, literature, the arts, industry, language, religion, and learning.  This diversity extended beyond the arts in the form of intermarriage between groups, mixing the gene pool and raising opportunities for new adaptations that hastened evolutionary advantage.  

10,000 years ago, agriculture as a revolutionary way of life for communities made cities possible, as did language, writing, money, science, and universal religion – forming the first shared cultural platform that would make living together possible.  The world’s oldest surviving city is, by a margin of millennia,  Damascus in Iraq, the first sizeable city of 2 million still standing (Jericho, which may be the first town, dating from 9000 BC, is a small settlement of 20,000 today).  Just as agriculture at a distance (the “hinterlands”) made the city possible, high and mobile tech have made of the megacity the smart and super-extended city-state, like Singapore or Dubai.  From their origins as protective fortresses that were adaptable as well as livable, cities have blossomed into the megastructures we know today that carry forward the cultural mandate to evolve our thinking and expression.

As cities began to proliferate, they promoted large-scale cooperation, density, and diversity, and role-identity versus just personality differences between citizens.  From 4000 BC the urban lifestyle has given us 6,000 years of living with the stressors of hierarchy, activity schedules matched to commerce, worship, sociability, industry and knowledge work, and seasonal events, sports culture, and the natural strain of strangers stressing each other out by constant needs to be mind-readers, wary and watchful about the behavior and motives of people with different agendas.  Unlike small Stone Age village life, cities mean daily contact with strangers, people who serve very contained work roles, and a 24-hour media presence —with whom we have no ongoing personal relationship but a steady psychological one. 

The urban way of life kicked off networking, social striving, and multiple associations, and constant change as an expected part of human existence, as well as placemaking, managerial and middle classes, and consumerism as the “urban species” lifestyle (Monica L. Smith, Cities: The First 6000 Years, 2019).  Smith calls cities “the first internet.”